Language and Culture: Is There A Connection?

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: The Story of Human Language

By John McWhorter, Ph.D., Columbia University

The way languages are configured, and the way languages change through time, is based on and indexed to the culture of the speakers. Is this true? Read on to understand the relation between language and culture.

Image of world map made of speech bubbles.
Language changes, transforms, and grows on its own, unconnected from culture. (Image: Qvasimodo art/Shutterstock)

It is natural that language interests people based on how it is connected to the culture or the psychology of the people who are using it. Culture is interesting, but language is actually something which in most ways is separate from culture. So there’s an intersection between language and culture that one can study.

Learn more about when language began.

Sapir-Whorf hypothesis

Many anthropologists have yielded wonderful insights from the intersection between language and culture. But language has a way of morphing, changing, abbreviating, transforming, and overgrowing on its own, unconnected from culture. It is not something that is indexed to culture.

Despite the fact that this is a leading paradigm in much cultural study, and is always considered promising, it is important to stay warned against is what is generally called the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.

This is named after Benjamin Lee Whorf, who actually was an amateur linguist, and formulated this most explicitly in the 1930s, based on work with his mentor– the linguist Edward Sapir. The basic insight of Whorf, or the basic hypothesis of Whorf, is that the structure of our grammar channels the way that we think.

Proof of the hypothesis

As intriguing as this notion is, and as particularly intriguing as it has become in the current era, when there is a lot of interest in diversity, it really has never been proven in any serious way. In fact, it is a surmise rather than something that has actually been demonstrated.

If one looks at the studies that have been aimed at the issue, until very recently, they were extremely unpromising, and even today, they don’t really square in any way with what Whorf was saying.

This is a transcript from the video series The Story of Human Language. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

SAE Languages vs Hopi

Image of a Hopi woman in traditional clothing.
Hopi is the language of the Hopi Native Americans. (Image: Unknown/Public domain)

Whorf’s hypothesis was based most prominently on differences that he observed between languages, like English, and he called English part of something called Standard Average European (SAE), and Hopi, the language of the Hopi Native Americans.

What Whorf meant by Standard Average European (SAE) was English and languages related to English, such as the Romance languages and Germanic languages, all of which are very different, but all of which have a certain kinship compared to all the other languages in the world.

Whorf is to be commended in that he looked at the Hopi language with no preconceptions that it was primitive or that it was primordial or that it was the language of savages. He had learned the lesson that indigenous languages are complex and interesting in their own right. So there was no sense that he thought of it as lesser than Russian.

That was an important lesson to learn, but he took that lesson further.

Learn more about how language changes.

Differences between Hopi and English

Whorf’s idea was that the differences between Hopi and English were such that a Hopi speaker thinks in a different way than English speakers in really significant ways. That language in the case of the Hopi is psychology, and it is for English speakers too, and that, therefore, the people have different psychologies.

For example, he noticed that the Hopi have one word for all things that fly, except birds. So if it’s an insect, if it’s a flying squirrel, if it’s an airplane, all those things are one word, and then there is a word for bird. English speakers, on the other hand, have words like mosquito and dragonfly and airplane and missile and bird.

So, according to Whorf, the idea was that while the Hopi person sees this unitary object of the non-avian flying thing, English speakers happen to subdivide that more carefully, and so a difference is seen there.

Whorf also noticed that there is one word for water in English, but in Hopi there is a different word for water that you see in the wild as opposed to water that you cook or wash with. There are two different words for that. In Hopi, water is different, depending on whether you see it sitting on the ground or whether you are using it for cooking.

Learn more about language families.

Concept of Time in Hopi

Image shows a wooden pole with arrow signboards pointing in different directions, and 'past', 'future', and 'present' written on the boards.
Whorf’s idea was that Hopi does not give importance to tense forms. (Image: 3D generator/Shutterstock)

Another thing that Whorf noticed was that Hopi presumably has no markers for tense. That, for the Hopi, the issue of whether something is in the past, present, or future is not important. English, however, has very finely subdivided  tenses, with such usages as I had gone, I went, I will go, I will have gone, I am going now, etc.

Whorf’s idea was that if the Hopi don’t have this, then this seems to tie into a cyclical conception of time that many Native Americans have often been said to have. One of his quotes on the Hopi was:

“Our objectified view of time is, however, favorable to historicity and to everything connected with the keeping of records, while the Hopi view is unfavorable thereto. The latter is too subtle, complex, and ever-developing, supplying no ready-made answer to the question of when ‘one’ event ends and ‘another’ begins.”

The idea of Native Americans having a cyclical view of time is quite interesting, particularly if one is not a Native American. It even, actually, seems to embody a certain kind of wisdom, and that track was also what Whorf was on.

Whorf’s Thoughts on Hopi

What he was doing was not solely looking at differences between ways the Hopi presumably think and the way that English speakers think. What he was really moved by was an effort to suggest that the way the Hopi think is better or more spiritually advanced. So, it was not just a comparison. It was that English is crude and Hopi is more sophisticated.

Of course, that was based on Whorf’s impulse, which was especially blazing in the linguistics of his era, to counter the idea that native people’s languages are primitive.

This was something that the Linguistics Society of America had been founded in 1924 to address. This is one of the main reasons that linguists came together as a society in the 1920s.

Whorf worked within that paradigm, and he did not intend to only show that there are differences. Whorf was keen on the idea that the Native American had a certain kind of wisdom that others lacked, and that tied into a larger cultural current of his day.

Common Questions About Language and Culture

Q: Who is Sapir-Whorf hypothesis named after?

Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is named after Benjamin Lee Whorf, who actually was an amateur linguist, and formulated this most explicitly in the 1930s, based on work with his mentor– the linguist Edward Sapir.

Q: What is the basic insight of Sapir-Whorf hypothesis?

The basic insight of Whorf, or the basic hypothesis of Whorf, is that the structure of our grammar channels the way that we think.

Q: What was Whorf’s hypothesis based on?

Whorf’s hypothesis was based most prominently on differences that he observed between languages like English, and he called English part of something called Standard Average European (SAE), and Hopi, the language of the Hopi Native Americans.

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